There are a few Instructables out there on how to create stills for various purposes. Usually these include a large amount of small diameter, flexible copper refrigerator tubing. While these stills can be quite effective, there is just something a little hokey about them. Especially the part where you run a large amount of expensive copper tubing through a bucket of standing water to cool the condensate. Then there's the issue of a high surface area on the interior of the tubing, which makes small volume distillations difficult to impossible. Plus they're bulky, unwieldy, and they look like a meth lab. I do have to give the authors of these projects some credit however, since DIY is typically about getting the job done, form follows function, etc etc. BUT...
I say there is a better way.
By using a small amount of 1/2" and 3/4" copper pipe, it is possible to build a lightweight, compact, collapsible, interchangeable, universal distillation apparatus for anything you could possibly hope to distill. The apparatus featured here is capable of efficient low to medium volume distillations and could in principle be scaled for use in high volume applications. It is constructed from relatively inexpensive parts which are available at any hardware store.
UPDATE 10/27/2011: If you find the start-up costs for this project to be prohibitive, I recommend this instructable.
I was inspired to build a distillation apparatus during an organic chemistry lab where we were required to identify an unknown organic solvent by IR spectroscopy. The samples they gave use weren't pure and we had to distill them first so the IR machine could get a good spectrum. This apparatus is modeled after the one I used in that lab. In the lab the apparatus was made of lab quality glassware. Since I don't know how to work with glass, and I DO have experience remodeling houses, I decided to combine my experiences to make an affordable, clean, safe, glass alternative distillation apparatus.
So. Now I've got your attention. Read on, my friend.
Step 1: Safety, Legality, and Disclaimer.
This project requires the use of tools and equipment that may be HAZARDOUS if handled improperly. Soldering of copper pipe requires the use of an open propane flame that can cause severe burns and fires. Never point a propane jet at anyone or leave one unattended for any period of time. HOT metal looks like COLD metal.
Distillation is a method of separating liquids that are in solution together, often as a form of purification. However, only proper, professional testing can positively identify the constituents of a given distillate. If you are purifying comestibles, DRINK AT YOUR OWN RISK.
DO NOT use lead solder.
DO NOT use this to distill hydrogen peroxide or any other potentially explosive chemical.
DO NOT allow blockages to form in the distillation pot outlets.
DO NOT use radioactive materials as fractionating column filler.
RESEARCH aluminum and decide for yourself whether it poses any danger.
In my own backwards country where the vestiges of prohibition are still rampant, it's illegal to manufacture certain distillates without a permit for the still in question. We'll just leave it at that. I don't think it's a problem to distill anything else, but I haven't checked so don't take my word for it. If you're in a country that allows it, then I highly suggest the HomeDistiller where you will find the finer points of ethanol production described in beautiful detail. The same principles apply to ethanol used for fuel, but as mentioned in the comments section, a still must still be registered to distill fuel. Still.
Please visit TTBgov for more information about US law regarding the use of a distillation apparatus. Basically, they make it impossible for a regular person to distill liquor. Producing fuel ethanol is somewhat do-able. All other distillations are ok.
This Instructable is provided for entertainment only and should not be used as a source of official information by anyone. Any and all damages incurred by the implementation of the information in this publication are the sole responsibility of the end user.